Ensemble ACJW/Conlon in New York – Generative and Degenerate Music

Schoenberg
Drei Klavierstücke, Op.11 – No.2: Sehr langsam
Varèse
Octandre
Krenek
Jonny spielt auf – Als ich damals am strand des Meeres stand
O Lacrymosa, Op.48
Schulhoff
Die Wolkenpumpe, Op.40
Milhaud
La création du monde, Op.81
Varèse
Intégrales
Hindemith
Kammermusik No.1, Op.24

Angelina Gadeliya (piano)

Katherine Whyte (soprano)

Matthew Worth (baritone)

Ensemble ACJW
James Conlon


Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 11 April, 2008
Venue: Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York City

James ConlonThis performance of groundbreaking works, all composed in the six-year period from 1921 to 1926, was not only a concert, but also a musicology lesson under the tutelage of James Conlon, who is currently artist-in-residence at The Juilliard School. Conlon titled this programme “Generative and Degenerate Music”, and throughout the evening he made observations about each of the works and offered biographical information about the composers, with particular emphasis on the impact on their lives of the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany – a subject in which Conlon is actively interested. (As Music Director of Los Angeles Opera, he has begun presenting works by composers suppressed by the Nazi regime in a “Recovered Voices” series.)

Conlon explained that he took the term “Degenerate Music” from “Entartete Musik”, by which the Third Reich condemned and banned certain composers, although their music is “anything but degenerate”. Conlon uses it “simply to refer to those composers whose lives were shortened or creativity disrupted”, thereby limiting their influence and depriving them of musical progeny. He contrasts with such “non-generative” composers, those who composed, performed and survived “in the relative freedom outside the control of Nazi suppression”, using the term “Generative” to denote their music, which was able to “celebrate itself and produce artistic offspring”. Most of this evening’s music fell into this happier category.

The concert was one of five at Carnegie Hall this spring by Ensemble ACJW, a performance component of The Academy – a program of Carnegie Hall, The Juilliard School, and The Weill Music Institute in partnership with the New York City Department of Education. The Academy, which was launched in January 2007, provides two-year fellowships to post-graduate musicians in order to help them to embark on professional careers that combine musical excellence with education and community outreach. The fellows – graduates of such leading music schools as The Curtis Institute of Music, Eastman School of Music, The Juilliard School, Manhattan School of Music, New England Conservatory, San Francisco Conservatory and Yale School of Music – performed superbly throughout the evening. There is also a strong educational component to The Academy’s activities, which includes bringing the fellows into the New York City public schools and bringing students into the concert hall, both as listeners – there were many students present on this occasion – and as performers (at a concert scheduled for May 22, also in Zankel Hall).

The concert began with an unannounced work: the second of Arnold Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces, Opus 11, sensitively played by Angelina Gadeliya. These pieces for piano marked the advent of fully atonal music – a turning point that helped to pave the way toward the emergence some fifteen years later in the early 1920s of both Schoenberg’s twelve-note technique and the music featured on this evening’s programme.

Edgard Varèse was represented by two works – Octandre (1923), and Intégrales (1924-25). These pieces, although composed just a year apart, presented two quite different aspects of the composer’s work. Octandre, in three rather indistinctly differentiated movements, is scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone and double bass and is the composer’s only ensemble piece without percussion instruments. This contrasted with Intégrales, in which winds (two flutes, both doubling piccolo, oboe, clarinet, E flat clarinet and horn) and brasses (two trumpets and three trombones, including bass and contrabass trombone) are joined by four percussionists. Individual instrumental voices were less prominent than in Octandre, as the wind and brass groups created distinctive sound clusters that contrasted with each other in a variety of rhythmic patterns. At various times the percussion group played alone, remained silent as the winds played, or joined the winds in tutti passages.

Katherine WhyteFollowing Octandre, Katherine Whyte gave excellent performances of two vocal works composed by Ernst Krenek (prior to his adoption several years afterward of Schoenberg’s twelve-note system). First came an aria from Krenek’s “Jonny spielt auf” – the most successful operatic work of the 1920s. This was followed by “O Lacrymosa”, a three-song cycle in which both the vocal line and the instrumental accompaniment – pairs of flutes, clarinets and bassoons, and a harp (played beautifully by Allegra Lilly) – created an appropriately atmospheric setting of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke.

Conlon is a champion of the music of Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, who, unlike the other composers represented here, did not survive World War Two, perishing at the hands of the Nazis in the Würzburg concentration camp in 1942. Conlon’s introductory remarks gave the audience a sense of the magnitude of the loss brought about by the persecution of the man and the suppression of his music. Schulhoff was represented here by a group of four songs, “Die Wolkenpumpe” (The Cloud Pump) – a title with no connection to the Dadaist German text by Hans Arp (also known as Jean Arp). Baritone Matthew Worth sang the meaningless words with clarity, accompanied in sometimes-jazzy fashion by E flat clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon and three percussionists.

The first part of the concert ended with the best-known work, Darius Milhaud’s jazz-influenced La création du monde. The only string instrument heard earlier in the concert had been a double bass in Octandre, but Milhaud’s scoring for a small string orchestra in addition to about fifteen wind, brass and percussion players, created a sound more characteristic of a symphony than a chamber work. La création is also more infectiously melodic and more overt in its use of jazz techniques than any of the evening’s other works.

The concert concluded with a lively performance of Paul Hindemith’s Kammermusik No.1. Although we can understand that this work was shockingly avant garde when it was first performed, it is hard to imagine a 1923 Munich audience pelting the stage with tomatoes, eggs and stink bombs. Today this work is not at all shocking, although its raucous finale, including a popular fox-trot on the trumpet and a wailing siren, is hardly ‘chamber music’. The opening movement featured lively figures on the xylophone contrasted with high-pitched emanations from flute, clarinet and cello, and the second movement drove forward rhythmically with some nice trumpet solos and sweet string passages. The third movement was quite unorthodox, as three winds – flute, clarinet and bassoon – alternated with single notes on the glockenspiel. From there, the wild final movement led up to a series of dramatic chords, ending this highly dissonant work with a simple C major triad.

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